Misadventures in Japanese Doramas (Part II)

As the title suggests, this post is the second installment of a (possibly still ongoing) series in which I attempt to further my experience in the scary world of Japanese live-action TV dramas. They’re basically uneducated mini-reviews of some of the doramas I’ve tried out over the past couple of years, in the hopes of getting a better idea of what doramas are like and what I think about them in general. Last time I took a look at Hana Yori Dango, Gokusen, and Massan, and this time around I have three more titles to add to the steadily growing pile. As with my previous post, they’re listed only in the order I watched them.

35-sai no Koukousei/35-Year-Old High School Student (NTV, 2013)

I had no idea what the plot of this show was going in, but the title made it sound like one of those ‘adult gets stuck in the body of a teenager’ or, even worse, ‘adult impersonates a teenager’ kind of stories. Thankfully, it turned out to be neither; 35-sai no Koukousei is in fact about a 35-year old who, for reasons that the series doesn’t get into until later, goes back to high school just as herself and with everyone knowing her age right off the bat.

Okay, so even that sounds pretty dumb, but farfetched as the premise is, I can respect it for playing everything straight. This isn’t any sort of comedy and it’s also not sleazy in the least – in fact, out of all the doramas I’ve seen that are set mainly in or around school, this is the one that in a couple of respects feels the most realistic. The kids basically act like kids, the teachers basically act like teachers, and the subject matter is always presented sincerely and with absolutely nothing in the way of creepiness. Said subject matter isn’t anything terribly original (apparently Japan really likes depicting bullying in schools and how most parents/teachers totally suck at dealing with it), but I’ll give the series props for being credible when it really counts.

After all, we all know someone who’s been there.

I gotta say, it’s the side-characters that contribute to this more than the lead herself though. While it was great to see a main female character in a dorama who’s not all super-wholesome and morally upstanding at all times (i.e. she has an attitude and isn’t always right), the writing lets her character down in a big way even if the acting doesn’t. The theme and main events of each episode is literally spoon-fed to the audience every single time, usually within the first minute, courtesy of Ayako looking over an old diary – all while dressed in black and with the lights out in her apartment, just in case it wasn’t obvious enough that she’s dealing with Trauma, capital T, from her own teen years. Conveniently, whatever she reads turns out to directly correlate with something that’s about to occur at her present-day high school, because I guess that’s just how trauma works, and we gradually get to know more about Ayako’s circumstances as she turns victims and bitches into friends, one classmate at a time. It’s… well, often about as tiresome as it sounds actually, but at least the show’s heart is in the right place?

14-sai no Haha/14-Year-Old Mother (2006, NTV)

This dorama was, for the most part, a pleasant surprise. First off, it was nice to watch a show that wasn’t solely about school/bullying/teaching for a change, but I was also happy to watch something that didn’t seem to be making any particular judgments about teenage sex or pregnancy. Abortion is obviously heavily discussed here (and for the record, it’s what nearly every character advocates, given Miki’s age and the physical/mental toll that having a baby would have on her), but Miki makes her own decisions for her own reasons.

Granted, I don’t think this series is in any way spectacular (if you want a really good fictional story about teenage pregnancy, among other things, try Saved!), but it’s a decent enough watch, and one that tries hard to focus on all the characters and their different perspectives rather than moralizing about anything. To be fair, the majority of Japanese doramas I’ve watched bounce around between characters to show different POVs, but 14-sai no Haha does so in a way that comes across as a lot more balanced and a lot more considerate. It centers not only on Miki and her struggles but also her family, her teacher, her boyfriend Satoshi, Satoshi’s mother, even a reporter who gets caught up in the potential scoop(s) – and with the exception of the boyfriend’s mother, all these characters feel remarkably genuine. This makes for an unexpectedly nuanced story; not something I see too often with these types of shows.

In fact, Miki’s mother ended up being my favourite character of the entire series, though the boyfriend and the teacher weren’t far behind. Again, not something I was expecting.

Unfortunately, 14-sai no Haha never quite manages to escape from the entirely expected melodrama and theatrics. The acting is fine and the show is more thematically mature than most other doramas I’ve seen, but it also has more than its fair share of those silly “dun dun duuuuun” moments. You know the type, I’m sure – dramatic face slaps, ooominous music at opportune moments, overplayed bitchiness, and events that too obviously occur purely because Plot Convenience. At the end of the day, it’s still basically a soap opera, albeit one of slightly higher quality than I’m used to. A solid effort though, so I can’t bring myself to be too harsh on it.

Great Teacher Onizuka (1998, Fuji TV)

Man, I had no idea this dorama was so popular before watching. I mean, I knew GTO was something of a household name in Japan due to the popularity of the manga, but the live-action TV series has had three separate adaptations now. This 1998 one is the earliest, and I must say, a big part of the fun for me came from the age factor. Seriously, just check out the OP at the top of this article (subbed in Italian because it was the only version I could find on YouTube). I’m not a huge fan of cheesy retro material but every time it played, I had a huge goofy grin on my face.

But I’ll get what I disliked out of the way first. By far my biggest problem with GTO was the way the female teachers were treated, particularly Fuyutsuki. She’s clearly no pushover but is constantly taken advantage of in the staffroom because of her gender – perfectly believable in and of itself, by the way. My problem was that, according to Onizuka, her issues can apparently be solved if she stands up for herself more instead of just bowing to her male colleagues. Oh Japan, if only your inherent sexism could be dealt with so easily. Then, sometime mid-series, Fuyutsuki gets drugged and (presumably) nearly raped while she’s out by one of said male coworkers – only to be rescued last-minute by Onizuka, of course, and subsequently told that it was basically her own fault; she shouldn’t be looking for status over love and shouldn’t have gone to a man’s house alone anyway. (How very dare she!) Oh, and she doesn’t even mention calling the cops, because Reasons, I guess. The male coworker comes back to school like it ain’t no thang, too. Most of my other objections with this show likewise had something to do with either gender or sex. All of Onizuka’s sleaziness seems to be excused because he’s still waiting for ‘the one’ and therefore isn’t truly sleazy at heart, but if that’s the case then I have no idea what I was supposed to think of his cop buddy, who does stuff like give Onizuka confiscated peeping tapes and goads him into enjo-kosai with high school girls. I get that this is all meant to be dumb, irreverent humour and not to be taken seriously, but personally I don’t think that makes it any less creepy.

I’m only surprised Onizuka wasn’t kicked in the balls more often.

I had a few more minor complaints too. Onizuka and Fuyutsuki’s constant bickering like an old married couple got old real fast, and the production qualities are not only cheap but at times downright terrible. I’ll admit it though, GTO somehow managed to charm me anyway. Like I said earlier, this show is a blast from the past, mostly in all the right ways – it’s even more cheesy and dorky and unrealistic than Gokusen, but it’s also clearly having a great time with that, and the enthusiasm was infectious. The casting is spot-on, too; the acting was honestly was better than I’d expected and while Japanese humour often doesn’t do it for me, it generally works well here, especially when the show goes far enough to parody its own genre. So yes, there’s a whole lot of stupid going on here, and GTO occasionally takes it too far. That said, I was (usually) having too much fun to care. You can forgive an awful lot when a show knows it’s being dumb.

Question of the post: Seen any of these doramas, and if so, what were your general thoughts? Do you have any doramas you’d recommend I try out sometime?

5 thoughts on “Misadventures in Japanese Doramas (Part II)

  1. I’ve only seen GTO, since I don’t like dorama much. While I enjoy the show, it’s arguably a step down from the manga: lots of stuff got simplified; there’s less characters; a lot of interesting sub-plots are abandoned. However, I do appreciate the show cutting down a good chunk of questionable sexualization of middle schooler.

    For recommendations, I like the Nobunaga Concerto live action. Nice look at (not very accurate) Japanese history. The humor is actually amusing rather than cringe worthy. The exaggerated acting fits the faux historical setting better than modern day drama. Just don’t expect HBO or BBC quality and you’ll be fine. The only big criticism I have is that the movie is just the last two final episodes stick together. Do Japanese people actually pay money to see such rip-off?


    1. Oh, I’d certainly never got into any Japanese live-action TV series and expect HBO or BBC quality. (Hell, I never go into most American or British live-action shows and except HBO or BBC quality.) But thanks for the rec, I’ll check it out sometime. 🙂


  2. 35 Year Old High School Student sounds an awful lot like the American comedy TV series Strangers with Candy, except played straight – the latter was spoofing after-school specials/We All Learned a Very Valuable Lesson!-type episodes of 90’s TV shows.

    Your mention of Hana Yori Dango reminded me of how a few of my friends back in high school were realllllly into the Taiwanese live-action TV adaptation, which ran under the title Meteor Garden… I seem to recall that it was in part a vehicle for a boy band and that the band members were the guys in the cast… having genuinely never understood the appeal of the story, it does astonish me that it was so popular it got so many adaptations.


    1. Yeah, a lot of people into Hana Yori Dango seemed really into all the live-action TV adaptations – Taiwanese, Japanese, and Korean. In total, there are 8 adaptations from the original manga, which just kinda blows my mind considering how trashy a lot of the material seems to be. But whatever, people are entitled to like what they like I suppose.


      1. Yeah, and lord knows I’ve enjoyed enough questionable garbage myself over the years, and will surely continue to do so going forward.



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